Kathmandu: On June 15, Rupa Sunar, a VJ associated with Image Channel, posted a video on her Facebook account laying out a case of caste-based discrimination she endured at the hands of a landowner whose flat she sought to rent.
In the three-minute-long video, which has now been republished across social media platforms, Sunar explained how the landowner refused to rent out the flat after Sunar told her she was from the Kami community, one of the ‘lowest’ castes according to the Hindu social stratification.
“The homeowner was ready to rent me the room until she inquired about my caste,” Sunar said in the video. As soon as she mentioned her caste, the homeowner went quiet, she added. “Later on, she called my friend who had introduced me to her, saying that she won’t be able to rent me the room because of my caste.”
The widely-shared video has led to massive public outrage as it lays bare the deep-rooted discrimination based on castes that still prevails in Nepal, not just in the rural areas but also in the urban settings.
Since she published the video, Sunar filed a complaint under Caste-based Discrimination and Untouchability (Offence and Punishment) Act, 2011 against the accused landowner, Saraswati Pradhan.
Pradhan was released on June 23 after the public prosecutor refused to file a case against Pradhan citing a lack of evidence. “We received a direct order from the District Government Attorney Office to release Pradhan,” said Senior Superintendent of Police Ashok Singh. “The case will be further investigated before it’s heard in the court.” Pradhan was then escorted by Minister of Education Krishna Gopal Shrestha from her holding. Many youths took to the streets in protest and burned the minister’s effigy.
The incident has also divided Nepalis along ethnic lines, with a section of the Newar community defending the landowner.
Sunar’s case is representative of the caste-based discrimination that hundreds of thousands of Dalits in Nepal are subjected to endure every day. This discrimination often takes gruesome turns, leading to murders, rapes, and suicides. Nawaraj BK died suffocating in the Bheri River, just because he, a lower caste boy, dared to fall in love with a girl of a higher caste family. Sete Damai had a Khukuri plunged in his heart, because his son married a Thakuri (“higher-caste”) woman.
These are just the major incidents that have caught people’s attention. “There are many other subtle discriminations, such as not getting a flat to rent, not being able to go to the temple and so much more, which are easily ignored by people if not talked about,” Sunar has said.
Sunar chose to speak up because she believes that this incident “represents the problem of almost every people in the Dalit community”.
“Saraswati Pradhan is just a character representing many similar individuals in this ongoing fight of Dalit community towards equality,” she says. “The situation for our community is so grave that some of my friends still lie about their caste to the homeowners so that they won’t get kicked out of the house.”
Many people have shown their support for Rupa Sunwar, including politicians. “I don’t know Rupa Sunar personally. But as a representative of a woman at the bottom of the most marginalized Dalit community in Nepali society, her revolt against caste discrimination must be supported by all proponents of truth and justice,” tweeted former prime minister Baburam Bhattarai.
The Front for the Eradication of Caste System, Nepal, an united front for the victims of caste-based discrimination, has issued a press release in support of Sunar.
Sunar’s case is representative of the caste-based discrimination that hundreds of thousands of Dalits in Nepal are subjected to endure every day.
But there are naysayers too. In an interview with Hamro Jatra, Saraswati Pradhan’s spouse has claimed that this all seemed like a pre-planned event and that the Pradhan family was not aware of the call being recorded. This has led many people to believe him.
The National Penal Code, 2017, section 161 mentions, “No person–in purchasing, selling or distributing any goods or services–shall purchase, sell or distribute such goods or services from or to only any person belonging to any particular caste, race or community or omit to provide, sell or distribute such goods or services to any person belonging to any particular caste, race or community.”
Hima Bista, a social activist and executive director of Women LEAD Nepal, told Nepal Live Today that Sunar’s case qualifies as caste-based discrimination “without a doubt”.
“What happened with Rupa Sunar is definitely a caste based discrimination,” she said.
In the recorded phone call, Pradhan says that she does not have any problem with Sunar’s caste but her mother-in-law does, leading many to empathize with Pradhan. But “polite” casteism, others have countered, is still casteism.
Meanwhile, a handful of news portals have published reports of dubious merits trying to push through controversy theories. One portal, Nepal Pana, published a “report” with the headline “European Union gives Rs 1.5 crore to Rupa Sunar to provoke ethnic conflict in Nepal!”. Even actor Manisha Koirala appeared willing to believe the report’s claims; “Sad if it’s true!,” she tweeted. The claims of the report have since been debunked.
Sunar on Saturday has filed a complaint against nine media outlets.
Sunar is not deterred and is firm in her belief that her fight is worth fighting for. “Dalit is not just a word,” she says. “It is a movement.”